A guide to creating better crosswords – lessons from The Solar Eclipse

After a decades-long wait America experienced one of nature’s spellbinding sights – the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. Charity Brown, a digital editor at The Washington Post cleverly thought of adding some extra zing to her reader’s planetary appetite and started working on a Total Solar Eclipse Crossword. The PuzzleMe team thought it would be worthwhile to share Charity’s experience to our crossword aficionados.

1)Make the answers short and clear.

Charity had an idea of creating multimedia crossword using gif, mp4s, and images to make the puzzle really fun and informative. She started with clues and answers relevant to the solar eclipse. However, her initial list of answers had some really long ones (e.g., PATH OF TOTALITY) Long answers make the grid big and unwieldy. Instead, we suggested she frame the clue in a way that the answer needed would be just the word TOTALITY. (7 characters instead of 14 characters).

2)Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple YES or NO or a number.

When we create any puzzle, we should always think about the end user who may not know much about the puzzle. Don’t send the reader up the garden path! In her initial list, Charity had some answers like “August 21, 69”, which she wanted to insert in the grid.  Answers that have numbers embedded in them can cause confusion because casual solvers may not know the entry format. People may wonder whether to enter AUGUST TWENTY ONE or AUGUST21, etc. (Yes, PuzzleMe allows you to have numbers in the grid.)

3) Don’t worry about whether a question will go  Across or Down. The software will take care of the layout.

Next, Charity thought she would need to specify which words would be placed Down or Across in the grid. Her initial list of answers had 2 different sub-lists: words for across and words for down. However, because the layout algorithm is completely automatic, she didn’t need to do this. Don’t worry about helping the software, it will help you! PuzzleMe’s automatic layout algorithm will evaluate millions of possibilities and come up with a compact layout that fits the answers.

4) After the software generates a grid, use the edit grid option to fill in more words related to the theme of the puzzle.

Next, Charity found that her original grid had some empty areas that were under-filled. It became quickly clear that the empty areas could be fitted with words related to the theme of the puzzle, such as PLUTO, GLASSES, and GAS, that would not only add interesting words to the grid but also fill out the grid more evenly.

5) Don’t reveal the answer to a question in other clues or media files.

One of the clues that Charity wanted to include contained the answer to another clue. (Yes! PuzzleMe will give you warnings). We suggested her to cross reference her clue to that answer. For example: Add a clue text like “the outermost layer of 19 Down”.

6) Whenever you use multimedia links — make sure to give the URL of the actual image, not the page containing the image.

After Charity had completely created the crossword, the embedded crossword was not picking up any image in the clues. Then we found that she was making a big mistake, she was using the URL of the page that contains the image. This is wrong. You should always use the URL of the actual image.

7) Add reference links. Users can learn more that way and you can take them deeper into your site or subject.

She wanted the user to reference an article while trying to solve the crossword puzzle. PuzzleMe has a feature called “Show Related Link”, which makes this task easy. We made all the reference articles available through the hint menu (bulb icon) during the game play. The “Show Related Link” option takes the players to the reference article which opens in a new tab. The idea is to make it part of the game as an extra hint to players.

8) Try to specify start and end time of Youtube videos in order to avoid revealing answers. Use the format #t=<seconds>; not #t=1m15s or &t=75

Charity wanted to use embeddable Youtube videos in clues, which will be played when the clue is clicked. However, she did not time them properly. You should specify the start and end time offsets to get to the interesting part of a video quickly and to avoid revealing portions that give away the answer. For example, this Youtube clip will start playing 75 seconds into the video due to the trailing #t=75 and stop at 85 seconds due to the &end=85 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bZkp7q19f0&end=85#t=75. You can also use mp4 and other formats supported by HTML5 and similarly specify start and end times for the video.

9)  Make sure to cite the source of a clue.

You can add attributions to your crossword in the ‘Puzzle Information’ section.

These are small matters, but they can really impact the quality of your puzzle! Hope you keep them in mind, and Happy Creating!